Experimentation on the Poor

Church of St. Lazarus of the Mendicants

This is not Cell Block D at your local Supermax. It’s the last word in architectural experimentation on the poorest and most vulnerable of Los Angeles. On South Hope Street of all places.

According to the New York Times’s architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, this hope-sapping building, the latest in a series for the Skid Row Housing Trust, will “deliver a major blow to the conventional notion of contemporary architecture as little more than an indulgence of the rich or highly cultured.” Really? Seems to me the professional elite are still indulging themselves, only with public funds and on people who have little choice in the matter. And this is not the first time.

Though there is more to the problem of social housing than simply the architecture, any rational person can’t help but foresee a repeat of the Pruitt-Igoe fiasco. It too was lauded by the architecture critics of its day. Doesn’t that courtyard look like an invitation to a drug dealer?

This is the way social housing used to look.

Now that is a courtyard, with vegetation, and water, and a place in the sun! Founded by the Mendicant Friars in 1601, Venice’s Hospice of San Lazzaro was designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi with a little bit of help from Antonio Sardi. The facade of the chapel, below, is classic Venetian Renaissance: a composite order pediment, a Roman bath window, a Corinthian portal, all crowned with the statues of saints. The rest of the building sports simple block cornices, typical Venetian windows, and the standard stucco and stone.

Church of St. Lazarus of the Mendicants
(Image Source)

The poor and the downtrodden used to be treated like royalty by comparison to today. They were given a dignified place in the social order. There is no experimentation here with forms designed to evoke the dehumanized isolation of the arid post-industrial world. There is only the drive to learn from history, to make use of those solutions which have proven themselves, and to build a beautiful world for man as we know him to be–not as some might wish him to be. Surely those are the necessary first steps to getting people who have lost their way back on their feet.



  • terrykearns February 22, 2010 Reply

    I felt awful when I realized this wasn’t a model but had actually been built. What kind of super salesman can convince powers to build like this?

  • Raymond J Stahl February 23, 2010 Reply

    The poor, I thought it was LBJ’s war on poverty that started tearing down slums to be replaced by government built hight rise slums, but Pruitt-Igoe was 20 years before him. This idea that we can build low income housing, give it away and expect it to be taken care of is just beyond me. Someone once pointed out that “the poor do not have the cognitive economic skills to earn a living”. Why has not one noticed this simple truth?

  • Abigail February 26, 2010 Reply

    depressing, Dino! That project looks like a prison. Are you (of course you are) familiar with the Fuggerei? http://www.fuggerei.de/en/1_geschichte.htm . Cheers to you and Paloma from CA.

  • Dino Marcantonio February 28, 2010 Reply

    Abby! Wonderful to hear from you. Actually I was not familiar with the Fuggerei! Thank you for the reference. Beautiful stuff. If only the Fugger family were around today!

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